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Fighting the last war

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During the 1930s the French military built the Maginot Line, a tract of concrete fortifications, obstacles and weapons installations as both an offensive and defensive tactic against a German invasion from the East. They built the Line based on the kind of warfare they had encountered in the First World War. On April 10, 1940, using updated tactics that the French had not seen before, the Germans invaded and penetrated the Line.

Related: The topography of Pluto

It is often said that generals have a tendency to fight the last war. While the quote is difficult to attribute, it has been around for a very long time and I couldn’t help but think of it with some concern as I read the recent KPMG study “Empowered for the future – insurance reinvented.”

My uneasiness began with the very first line in the study’s foreword and grew with each new page. The report begins, “Insurers have been trying to ‘transform’ their organizations for decades.” Reading that sentence with its internal quotation marks, I wondered if the study’s authors were foreshadowing the remainder of the study that reveals, for the most part, an industry that isn’t “transforming” as much as it is “reforming.”

One of the authors of the study, Mary Trussel with KPMG in Canada, points out that, despite many organizations’ talk about “the need to be more customer-centric . . . the fact that less than a quarter expect to be disrupted by changing demographics and preferences suggest that insurers may not have their eyes on the ultimate prize.”

In fairness, some are attempting to make steps in the right direction. Our life insurance brethren at Lincoln Financial have announced a term life policy that is completely influenced by the impatience of Millennials who prize speed and convenience in all of their purchasing. Unlike a traditional fully-underwritten life policy, which can take as much as 45 days from the time an agent submits the application, Lincoln’s aims to issue this series in as little as 20 to 22 days.

Yet one must ask, in an environment in which the average online consumers looking for a product spends 18 seconds on site 1 before moving on to site 2, is this enough? Is it what those customers expect . . . or demand?

In previous columns we have discussed the difference between Kodak, a powerhouse company that made countless incorrect decisions and never came to benefit from its invention of digital photography, and Uber, which disrupted and is transforming another industry to such an extent that its very name has become a verb!

Tom Nodine of KPMG was quoted in the study as saying, “The incumbent insurance companies are now in an epic race to transform themselves to avoid being disintermediated by new digital competitors. There’s a possibility that a number of major insurance names we know today may not be here in 10 years.”

With 42 percent of the insurers surveyed saying they “lack the change management acumen required to achieve the objectives of their transformation strategy,” it may be much more than a possibility that today’s household names become tomorrow’s Kodaks.

The good news is that KPMG surveyed financial services firms for its study. The bad news is that while the medical side of the industry, spurred by the Affordable Care Act and other challenges, is changing at a bit more rapid a rate, it still looks more like reform than transform. In their large-scale public policy book “The Art of Transformation,” co-authors Newt Gingrich and Nancy Desmond make the point that while reform is a small word, transformation is an enormous one. This is an industry not typically known for taking enormous steps.

Enormous steps are what is required if we, our industry, and those who practice in it do not want to be perfectly positioned to fight the last war and lose the next. 


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